For me, some of the best and most memorable gaming experiences are made when a game’s themes intrinsically inform its gameplay, and vice versa. It’s something that doesn’t come by accident, and it shows a studio’s true understanding of the medium. PixelOpus, an indie studio under the umbrella of Sony Interactive Entertainment, seem to have already cracked it on their second ever title, making Concrete Genie an absolute gem of a game and one that Sony should be proud to have exclusively in the PlayStation family.
Concrete Genie is a game with a few things to say, and they’re things that aren’t typically said in the medium. It’s partially a game about bullying, both the effects on victims and the hope for reconciliation. It’s also somewhat about the impact that environment has on commerce and the knock-on effect that has to communities. Overall though, it’s about forgiveness and reparation. Between losing his home town, the fishing port of Denska, to an oil accident and being constantly bullied by a gang of troubled kids, main character Ash doesn’t have the best relationship with the world. He spends his time escaping into a sketchbook, where he draws fantastical creatures he calls Genies, as well as the places they inhabit. During a run-in with the bullies in (the technically off-limits) Denska, they take Ash’s sketchbook and scatter the pages to the wind until it’s completely empty. Following one of the pages, Ash ends up at Denska’s lighthouse where, magically, the page comes to life and births an actual Genie – one trapped within the two-dimensional confines of the lighthouse walls, as it was in the pages of the book. The Genie, named Luna, gives Ash a magical brush that imbues him with the power to bring his drawings to life on any wall, setting him off on a journey to find the rest of the scattered pages and use his newfound paint powers to rid Denska of a creeping darkness that’s slowly engulfed the town.
Herein lies the game’s core mechanic: painting magical murals across the town, restoring its beauty while also bringing to life more of the Genies. Laying down some paint is as easy as pressing the right trigger, which kicks the Dualshock 4’s motion sensors in and brings up a menu of pre-fabricated designs to paint. While it’s not possible to paint ‘freely’, the designs themselves are drawn into the world as opposed to just stamped on, so you have a degree of freedom in their size, shape and direction, be it grass or flowers, a tree, a campfire or even the sun and moon. The designs unlock gradually over the course of the game, as you find their pages in the world, and fit into five distinct themes that mirror the areas they’re found in and the tone of the story at the time.
Completing each area of Denska requires painting specific walls or buildings, denoted by a series of hanging bulbs that light up as you paint over the correct areas until they’re all lit up. There is typically no prerequisite for what you paint in those spots though, and you can paint almost any wall or flat, vertical surface that you want just for the hell of it, making for some refreshingly chill and meditative gameplay that doesn’t hurry you along any more than it needs to. The only real ‘threat’ in the game, at least to begin with, is the gang of bullies that insist on making Ash’s life hard. They’ll occasionally hang about areas you’ll need to explore and harass you if they see you, but they’re easily drawn away by yelling and causing a distraction, and as you complete each area they move along in turn. Ash is also quite nimble and can climb, Asssassin’s Creed-style, up anything with enough footholds. Useful for evading bullies, but also for finding hidden design pages and other secrets.
Not every problem can be solved with paint and platforming alone though, and that’s where the Genies come in. At certain points in the world, Ash has the opportunity to paint a new Genie. Similar to the regular paintings, Genies are born from a semblance of pre-designed parts: a body, ears, tails, horns, all painted into the world with simple strokes. Again, players are free to arrange and manipulate the parts however they see fit, and the game simply slaps on some arms and legs and animates the Genie appropriate to the body they’ve been blessed with. The game does a good job of keeping the Genie designs under control enough for them to work properly while still giving the player a nice degree of freedom in how they’re designed. I became quite partial to designing my Genies with their heads at the bottom or giving their bodies odd curves just to give them a comical gait. Genies have elemental properties too, predetermined based on where they’re created. This gives them abilities that assist Ash in getting through environmental obstacles, such as burning down barricades or electrifying power boxes. The Genies can also contribute to Ash’s cause by giving him Super Paint, which he needs to paint over certain surfaces that have become too far tainted by darkness. They won’t just give up Super Paint for nothing though, so it’s always good to pay attention to your Genies’ requests for certain paintings, or find hidden symbols that denote places to paint them extra-special murals.
Concrete Genie is a relatively brief game, somewhere around the five hour mark, more if you’re inclined to take it slow and paint on everything, but it’s paced near perfectly. The cyclical system of entering a new area, sprucing it up enough to create and build rapport with your Genies, then having them help you progress to the next point, keeps things moving at whatever speed you’re comfortable with. PixelOpus throws enough new quirks at you that there’s never any feeling of repetition, either. In fact, by the time the game was done giving me creative new ways to combine mine and my Genies’ abilities to solve puzzles, I was still hungry for more. There are distinct ‘acts’ to Concrete Genie’s narrative though, and without spoiling anything, things really ramp up (and change up significantly) in the later portion. By the end the ordeals that Ash has gone through, his dealings with the bullies and everything that the Genies help him achieve in Denska come to a brilliant crescendo that had me completely hooked and almost breathless at the conclusion of it all.
Concrete Genie’s other big triumph is its presentation, which I can only describe as extremely accomplished. Firstly for its immediate artistic style, which to me sits somewhere between the environmental lines of Infamous, the darkly endearing designs of a Double Fine game and the energetically roughshod characters and animation of a Laika film. Trust that this is high praise coming from me. Alone, that’s great, but it’s also helped by an acute understanding of visual language and how best to lead players and keep them engaged without obvious signposting and prompting. As you progress through Denska that original lighthouse will always be in view, and from there, a distinct path of brightly glowing graffiti that signals just how far you’ve come. Your Genies, too, love to communicate visually and will almost always be around to point you in the right direction. With a minimal HUD, the onus is left on the incidental details and the motion of the world and characters around you to make your path clear, and the game never fumbles on this. The fantastic character animations in and out of cutscenes are helped along by great voice acting, and the whole thing is punctuated by an un-intrusive and memorable score.
Lastly, Concrete Genie also offers a pretty cool extra mode for the PlayStation VR that sees you helping out Splotch by painting with the Move controllers, and includes a pretty special surprise that I won’t spoil here. If you’d like to know more about VR in Concrete Genie, you can check out a really quick summary of the experience here. I promise I’ve signalled the most spoiler-y bit!
Concrete Genie is truly something special. Even in my humble attempt at critiquing the game without giving everything, I feel I’ve said both too much and too little. If you’ve any inclination toward the great, unique experiences and excellent storytelling that indie developers seem to do best, you owe it to yourself to play this game. If you love self-guided adventures that still manage to be perfectly succinct and consistently compelling, you owe it to yourself to play this game. If you have kids, and you want to share in a journey with them that actually has something positive to say and impart, you owe it to yourself and them to play this game together. Yet another bona fide PlayStation gem to add to the list.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher